For most of its history the French Mediterranean port-city of Marseille was associated with the most unflattering characterizations. In spite of the good fortune of being situated on one of the world’s most gorgeous bays, surrounded on the other sides by mountains, the unsavory reputation ensured that the mysterious city of crime and corruption remained an enigma and a place to avoid. However, descriptions such as “gritty, boisterous, crime-ridden, mafia-controlled and backward” are now giving way to depictions including “rediscovered, redefined, city-on-the-rise, colorful, lively and authentic.” Why the sudden change?
In 2008, Marseille was chosen as the 2013 European Capital of Culture. With millions of euros pouring in from the EU and international investors, the city is going through a complete transformation. The plan is to turn Marseille and its surrounding areas into a dazzling world stage for international travel and a center of art and culture. It is part of an even grander initiative called The Euroméditerranée Project. Today, Marseille-Provence – its new official name – is the largest urban renewal project in Europe.
In preparation for these sweeping ventures, massive development, refurbishing and construction projects designed by international star architects such as Zaha Hadid, Massimiliano Fuksas, Norman Foster, Frank Gehry and others, have been underway for the past few years.
The new national Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations (MuCem), designed by French-Algerian architect, Rudy Ricciotti, is the first of its kind outside of Paris. Originally scheduled for opening at the end of 2012, the new unveiling is now set for June 2013. Numerous smaller museums are also being renovated and upgraded. Hundreds of innovative, interactive events are planned and lots of small art galleries, specialty boutiques and restaurants are opening around the transformed docklands and the city’s traditional focal point, the Vieux Port (Old Port).
The local population, however, is highly skeptical of this “rennaissance” and so a kind of tug-of-war is taking place on whether the metamorphosis will actually take hold. If you talk to local residents, most are likely to tell you – emphatically – that it is all a fantasy and will never happen.
A major public relations campaign was launched concentrating on the international public to inform and entice visitors to Marseille-Provence. Marseille’s streets have swarmed with international journalists on press trips. Articles about Marseille are appearing everywhere. The goal of the 2013 European Capital of Culture project is to “help transform the entire area into a genuinely European metropolis,” according to the project brochure. So why is there so much local skepticism?
While much of the international press has applauded “Marseille’s Cultural Renaissance” (WSJ) from “Crime to Culture” (Der Spiegel), the French press is decrying the city’s deplorable degradation related to public security. The crime rate has increased at an alarming rate during the last few years.
“Rarely has there reigned such a climate of insecurity,” reported l’Express. Three chiefs of police within two years have come and gone, unable to get a grip on the increasing criminality. A shortage of police officers makes it easy for young people, often on drugs, to rule the streets with impunity, using assault weapons haphazardly for simple robberies or for settling accounts, and with no regard to collateral damage. Burglary, vandalism, theft, muggings and homicides are commonplace throughout the city. People feel unprotected and vulnerable. With all the disorder and lawlessness, many Marseillais are wondering if the entire attempt at culture conversion is a huge gamble.
Marseille, with a population of 840,000, is a truly different city than any other in Europe. It has been a melting pot of diverse cultures for as long as its 2,600-years of existence. Most of Marseille’s migrant populations have settled and developed a proud and special feeling of being Marseillais, however that may be defined, but within some of these groups there is an unusually high percentage of unemployed youth – estimated at 40%. Lacking education and skills, and without a proper understanding of how a civil society functions, they turn to violent crime.
To this piquant mix add rampant corruption at all levels of society and two old Corsican clans with their special interests, continually competing for political control in a region where clan connections and loyalty supersede those of civil society, and you have the perfect recipe for evaporating public projects.
Ask almost any Marseillais if they think the 2013 Capital of Culture year or even the Euroméditerranée Project will have a positive effect on the city and, with a perplexed expression, you’re likely to hear, “Of course not, because it won’t be finished, and what is finished will soon fizzle out. “Skepticism abounds,” said an American friend of mine, living in Marseille, after the grand opening of the 2013 Culture Year celebrations in January.
To support this claim, they might recite decades of unfinished projects, such as the overpass that goes nowhere, or the unfinished expressway to Nice. They could add in public security and infrastructure issues, such as potholes, crumbling streets, along with an unruly populace not generally known for being service oriented.
Undeterred by these social problems, project leaders and city officials aim to increase tourism to the region by several million per year, having been inspired by transformations of other formerly distressed cities such as Lille and Barcelona. More than that, they aspire to change the current derisive situation by using culture to change culture. Are they visionaries or pipe dreamers? What will be the outcome?
Here we are, well into 2013. The MuCEM is set for opening in June. Will it be ready? Other construction projects planned for 2013 are far from completion. In fact most of the museums under renovation are still closed, prompting a cynical article last month in Le Figaro entitled, “Marseille 2013: City of Closed Museums.” As things look now, the Capital of Culture project won’t really get off the ground until the year is practically over. There is even some talk that Marseille will ask for an extension.
As for the planned events, complaints can be heard around town that they are of mediocre caliber unworthy of a city attempting to claim a big role on the international stage as a city of culture.
Surprisingly, about 400,000 people – half of Marseille’s population – enthusiastically showed up for the 2013 grand opening. The promised Police reinforcements arrived in time for the events. They have had a good deal of success in raiding and dismantling crime enclaves. But this is only a temporary situation. It does prove, however, that the increased law enforcement presence works. There is more optimism among some of the locals, though cautious. On the other hand, the large turnout for the 2013 kick-off is certainly a strong endorsement that the people of Marseille, in spite of their skepticism, are ready and willing to take part in the revival of their city.
Now only a three-hour train ride from Paris and blessed with 300 days of sun a year, striking landscapes, wonderful beaches and romantic coves, lively people with quaint customs, an easy-going lifestyle and topped off with mouth-watering cuisine – how can such a place not be destined for a higher call? You need only to view Marseille from the high, rocky cliff where Notre Dame de la Garde hovers protectively over the stunning bay holding the promise of the marvelous possibilities.
Whether or not Marseille succeeds in its far-reaching plans to redefine the city’s cultural life and to continue broadening them beyond 2013, it is worth keeping an eye on this city to see what lessons are to be learned. If Marseille is successful, it will offer a great example for many other cities around the world to revitalize and enrich their societies. If it can happen in Marseille, it can happen anywhere. The proof will be in the créme brûlé.
Header photo: Marseille Vieux Port by Studiofag (Dreamstime)